7 Steps to Horse-Buying Success

Plan, observe, and test-ride to maximize your chances of bringing home exactly the right trail horse for you.
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Plan, observe, and test-ride to maximize your chances of bringing home exactly the right trail horse for you.
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Your first trail horse was wonderful, sweet, cooperative, smooth, and a joy to ride. You want your next trail horse to be exactly like him. Or, perhaps your first trail horse wasn't all that wonderful and you didn't really enjoy riding him. Either way, you're now looking for your next trail horse. What can you do to ensure that your next horse is right for you?

Here, we'll give you seven steps to horse-buying success: (1) Create a notebook; (2) evaluate conformation; (3) evaluate ground manners; (4) evaluate personality; (5) evaluate gaits and movement; (6) ride in the arena; (7) ride on the trail.

Along the way, we'll give you five conformational flaws to avoid, test-ride red flags, and an essential-trail-riding skills checklist for your potential new mount.

Step 1: Create a Notebook
What to do:
Title a notebook "My Trail Horse." Record everything that you loved - and anything you disliked - about your previous trail horse. Then write down a description of your imaginary ideal trail horse, and arrange his attributes in order of importance. Finally, list your "deal-breakers" - single factors that would cause you to walk away from a horse.

If you have a list from years ago, revisit and revise it. What are your needs and wants today? Some things may've changed. Do you have a different job? Have you retired? Where do you live? How often do you go out on the trails, for how long, and with whom? What are your trails like? What do you enjoy most about trail riding? What do you enjoy least?

Consider everything that can affect your activities and enjoyment. Terrain, seasons, and weather conditions should all be factors in your choice of a horse, as should your own health and fitness.

Why it matters: You'll take that notebook, a pen, and a camera on horse-shopping trips to record your observations and help jog your memory. The notebook will help guide you to the best prospects and weed out unsuitable ones. Your on-site notes and camera will help you remember, say, which bay gelding was which.

Expert tip: As you make your list, keep in mind that there are no "right" or "wrong" answers. Each piece of information will help you in your search for the right horse.

Step 2: Evaluate Conformation
What to look for: Good feet and legs, a deep body, a balanced build with good shoulder and hip angles, and a nice set of withers. Note that a too-wide barrel can take up your leg, rendering it less-effective for cues. A too-tall horse will be hard to mount on trails. A too-tall horse can also raise you into more branches, dew, and cobwebs than a shorter horse would.

Why it matters: Good conformation is an essential starting point; your new trail horse should be physically well-suited for his job. If he's built for soundness, his movement is likely to be good, and that means on-the-trail comfort for both of you. Decide in advance which flaws you can accept and which ones you can't. A plain head, a low-set tail, an uneven blaze, or smaller stature than you thought you wanted won't interfere with his soundness or your riding pleasure. Only serious structural flaws should be deal-breakers. (For five conformational flaws to avoid, see page 34.)

Expert tip: Buy soundness, not trouble. Beware the horse that's beautiful, sweet, and well-trained, but not quite sound. If the seller tells you, for example, "He's just a little off today, it's no big thing. He must've hurt himself playing." Say, "Thank you for your time," and leave. Your new horse is out there somewhere. This isn't him.

Step 3: Evaluate Ground Manners
What to look for: A friendly, willing attitude. Watch the horse with his pals in the field. Watch as he's haltered, led away from the others, groomed, and tacked up. (Ask the seller to use a hose and fly spray during grooming.)

Why it matters: Good ground manners indicate good training plus a good disposition. You'll be spending quite a lot of time handling your horse on the ground, so he should be quiet, polite, and cooperative. The way he interacts with his pasture pals, with his handler, and with other horses in the barn tells you a lot.

Expert tips: Avoid a horse that seems frightened, agitated, or angry, appears to fear or resent other horses or his handler, rears when his handler drops a hoofpick, and/or shies when the rider removes a jacket. This probably isn't the horse you want to trust on the trail, where he'll be meeting unfamiliar horses and humans.

Also walk away if the horse is unpleasant with other horses and with his handler, or if he appears to dislike being led, groomed, and tacked up. You may blame the horse's handlers; you may even feel that you want to "take him away from all this" and give him a better life. Stop! It could take years to unpack this horse's emotional baggage, and you're looking for a trail horse, not a project horse. Take a deep breath, turn away, and look elsewhere.

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Step 4: Evaluate Personality
What to look for: Personal trust and affection for the rider need time to develop; right now, your job is to discover the horse's general attitude, his awareness of his environment, and his reactions to sudden surprises. A good trail horse will be alert but not spooky and calm but not brain-dead. A horse that leaps sideways in fear whenever he sees a dog or truck probably isn't trail-horse material; neither is the horse that doesn't notice the dog or the truck. A good trail horse will notice both - he'll know exactly where they are at all times - but he won't panic.

Why it matters: If you purchase a nervous horse that overreacts to every tiny change in his environment, you'll spend all your riding time trying to persuade him to relax. The horse that slogs along without paying attention presents two potential problems. First, he may not notice things that he should notice for safety's sake; second, you have no idea what he'll do if he ever does become excited or fearful.

Expert tips: Don't buy a "road worrier" or a sleepy slug even if he has years of trail experience. In general, the rule is "experience preferred" but there are other considerations. Have you seen another horse that had less training and experience but good conformation, gaits, and personality? You might consider moving him to the top of your list. Calm, sensible horses are usually cooperative, fast learners, and you might do well to take that one home and complete his education yourself.

Step 5: Evaluate Gaits and Movement
What to look for
: Pay attention to the horse's balance and behavior when the rider mounts and dismounts. Ask the rider to demonstrate all gaits in both directions, perform ring figures (circles, turns, figure-eights), and show transitions, halts, and a few steps back. Look for even steps, level gaits, and balance on turns - the horse should be bending through his body, not leaning into the turn like a motorcycle.

Why it matters: A trail horse must stay balanced - over his own feet and under his rider. A horse that bends can keep his weight evenly distributed over his feet; a horse that leans is unbalanced. That's dangerous in the arena; it's even more dangerous on trails where the footing can be slick and unpredictable.

Expert tip: If the horse's gaits don't appeal to you, or if the horse is unbalanced even on good footing with a familiar rider, thank the owners for their time, and leave.

Step 6: Ride in the Arena
If the horse's gaits and balance look good, ride the horse. By this time, you've seen him handled and ridden, and you have a good idea of the extent and type of his training.

What to look for: Balance, responsiveness, and good under-saddle manners. Mount, adjust your stirrups and reins, and ask the horse to move off. Stop, back, start, and turn. Do you feel at ease? How's his balance? Try to repeat everything his rider did - at all gaits and in both directions. Are the horse's gaits comfortable for you? Does he respond promptly to your cues? Perform gait transitions. Is he easy to shift from one gait to another? Perform transitions within gaits, too. If you ask, will he give you slower or faster speeds, and shorter and longer strides?

Why it matters: A really good trail horse usually has more gears than a semi, and can easily adjust his stride to stay with the other horses. If you've discovered a horse with wonderful gaits, hurrah! Now, find out if the horse has enough gears at those gaits to let you ride and chat with your usual companions.

Expert tip: So far, so good? Ask to cross obstacles. Any facility should be able to provide a few ground poles and a tarp; if you're lucky, the facility may have a full set of trail class obstacles. If so, use them. Try moving the slicker from one post to another, opening and closing the gate (and possibly a mailbox), backing through the L, and going over the little bridge.

Step 7: Ride on the Trail
If you liked the horse in the arena, take him on a trail. His owners should mount up and come with you. Tell them that you'd like to go up and down a hill, through water, and over a log or two. Ask whether anything bothers or scares this horse.

What to look for: By now you're familiar with this horse's gaits and general way of going, and you should feel at ease with him. It's time for you to find out about his trail skills.

Change his position. Ask him to take the lead, bring up the rear, and travel between horses. A good trail horse will go where you ask him to go.

With his owners' permission, set off alone. Does the horse obey willingly or struggle to stay with his pals? Does he balk, fret, or try to turn back when he can't see them any more? Next, ask him to stand quietly while the others go on without him. Even if he seems mildly anxious, he should still listen to you.

If something along the trail startles him, observe his reaction. That's how you'll learn what he does when he's startled and how quickly he recovers.

Why it matters: Horses can move and react very differently in different venues, which is why your test ride in the arena is just the prelude to your test ride out of the arena. On the trail, you can perform a thorough evaluation of the horse's gaits, balance, flexibility, and responsiveness. You'll learn how he feels on the trail - which is, after all, where you plan to ride him.

Expert tip: If you come to a part of the trail that's suitable for faster gaits (perhaps an open field), ask the horse for a lope/canter. You'll find out whether he's easily controlled at that gait and how quickly he responds to your request to slow down or stop. That's important information.

By the time you've seen a dozen horses, you'll have a full notebook, and your camera may show signs of wear. But the information you've collected will let you compare horses, make a wise decision, and choose the best, most suitable trail horse for you.

Ready to look for the right horse for you? Go to Equine.com, the premier classifieds site of the Equine Network, to search for the perfect horse!